I was up at the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon, the other week listening to the curator of the place, a very interesting gentleman named Stewart Bailey, talking with wonder about his boss, the octogenarian owner and founder of Evergreen Airlines, Del Smith. Smith, like many great achievers in aviation, has contributed greatly to preserving aviation history not because he ever set out to preserve anything but because he is a doer, a guy who never said “no” to an opportunity or even the possibility of an opportunity. The result was an aviation business, Evergreen International Airlines, which currently operates a fleet of a dozen 747s that fly around the world doing … well, doing pretty much anything you can imagine a 747 doing, and then a few things.
The wealth that Smith amassed from Evergreen was used to create the museum, something that never would have happened without the airline or without Smith’s love not only of airplanes themselves but also of using airplanes to do tough jobs, like fight fires, eradicate deadly flying pests and haul huge amounts of freight to places in the world once considered so remote that, before Evergreen, nobody hauled freight there.
The museum, as you might know, is home to one of the largest airplanes ever built, the Hughes H-4 Hercules, almost universally known — to Howard Hughes’ dismay — as the “Spruce Goose.” Without Smith, it’s very likely the airplane would have been chopped up and distributed to widely scattered aviation museums piece by piece.
But at Evergreen, thanks to Del Smith, the Spruce Goose is whole again. The nickname Spruce Goose, by the way, was a pejorative moniker the press gave the project to highlight its boondoggle nature, which irked Hughes greatly despite the fact it was patently true, or, more likely, because of that fact. Donald Douglas was said to have turned down the project, when offered it, because it was impractical.
As much as you have to love the idea of an eight-engine flying boat with a wingspan greater than a football field, the idea behind it — that of a flying troop ship used to outsmart the German U-boats of the day — wasn’t all that clever to begin with. One school of thought was that Hughes “flew” the Spruce Goose on its only flight — well after the war was over — simply to shut his critics up. It seemed to work. Whether the airplane ever actually flew or just simply floated up into ground effect remains a controversy today among some. I’ve seen the footage. The Hercules sure seems to be flying to me. For such a behemoth — it was designed to carry 750 troops and it’s projected loaded weight was 400,000 pounds — it was and is a true beauty. I got to sit in it. If you go to McMinnville, you might get to too.
The Spruce Goose isn’t the only airplane at the museum. Far from it. There are dozens of other gems, including a few of my favorites, a Messerschmitt ME-262 jet, an SR-71 Blackbird and a like-new B-17 — Smith found the ball turret decorating a bar and had to buy the entire bar to get the single component; he reportedly turned around and sold the bar, after having removed the turret, for a profit.
If you haven’t been to McMinnville, you need to go. There are so many remarkable airplanes there that you could, if you love flying as I do, spend all day or a few days, walking from model to model, from P-51 to F-104, marveling at these machines. While you’re at it, you might just want to reflect on the nature of this place, a museum celebrating the beauty of airplanes by a guy who loved them chiefly for what they could do for him, make a buck. You’ve got to love that connection.
As we all know, the aviation world has changed irrevocably over the past couple of decades. While we all feel as though this is new stuff, that such change has never before happened in the history of aviation, it’s not true. It has happened. It’s happened over and over again. While it’s hard to imagine pilots pining for the glory days when real airplanes used wing warping for flight control, that’s the way it works. Times change, technologies change, the economics of flying changes, and the regulatory climate changes too.
Many of us in this generation think of the Big Three aircraft manufacturers, Beechcraft, Piper and Cessna, as having defined the majority of the history of piston general aviation. But the truth is that the rise of these companies to their heights in the 1960s and 1970s, when they were each building thousands of airplanes a year of many different model types, was a huge but relatively short-lived postwar phenomenon. The effect of that explosion of activity is still strongly felt today because we’re still enjoying the fleets of the airplanes these companies produced during their heydays.